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Angel: A Nightmare in Two Acts – Port City Playhouse

Jordan Wright
November 7, 2011
Special to The Alexandria Times

Robin Zerbe (Irma) & Doug Sanford (Mengele) - Photo credit to Doug Olmsted

Robin Zerbe (Irma) & Doug Sanford (Mengele) - Photo credit to Doug Olmsted

“Evil can be most appealing, even when it comes packaged so attractively,” declares the sage defense attorney (David Adler) to the young prosecutor, referring to the captivating Irma Grese, known as the “Blonde Angel of Auschwitz”.

It is important to place a good deal of weight onto this observation as Irma, comrade and lover to the notoriously barbaric Dr. Josef Mengele, is revealed to be a very complex villainess indeed.  Drawn from the life and courtroom testimony of the notoriously sadistic Nazi guard, the drama becomes a psychological study on the fallibility of appearances and perceptions.

Using archival footage of Adolf Hitler greeting his fanatical countrymen from inside a convertible Mercedes, German recruitment posters from the 30’s and 40’s, and video of Nazi-saluting Hitler-Jugend, the Aryan youth movement trained in anti-Semitism, Director Bruce Folmer creates a haunting backdrop to open this chilling play.  Coupled with visual compiled by Folmer, there is stunning audio.  A German folk song plays cheerfully against the screech of a train grinding to a halt, evoking the horror about to befall its innocent Jewish passengers.  Ninety-six people in a railroad car meant to hold eight horses, was standard operating procedure in this unthinkable transport.

Standing at attention before a large crimson and black Nazi flag, Irma, a paragon of SS fervor and shining example of The Third Reich, is revealed to the audience.  Jack-booted and outfitted with Luger pistol and horsewhip – her beauty lies in stark contrast to the evil she represents.  She is twenty years old.  She will be assigned to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp before being transferred to the Auschwitz-Birkenau Camp where she had an affair with Mengele.  Later she was sent to Bergen-Belsen where she was ultimately captured by the British Army at twenty-two and sent to prison for her crimes.

Robin Zerbe (Irma) & Luba Hansen (Olga) - Photo credit to Doug Olmsted

Robin Zerbe (Irma) & Luba Hansen (Olga) - Photo credit to Doug Olmsted

Barely out of her teens, Irma oversaw 30,000 women.  Her duty to The Reich was selecting victims condemned to the gas chambers known euphemistically as “bakeries”.  At her trial in Luneberg, Germany in 1945, she is accused of war crimes so brutal and sadistic, as to terrify the Devil himself.  Abandoned by her parents, her younger sister Helene, who dutifully visits her in prison, testifies to her cowardliness in the schoolyard and her former innocence.

The script, when it is in the courtroom, adheres faithfully to actual testimony at trial.  But it is in the exploration of the complexities of evil and its shifting effect on the characters that this play becomes the gripping drama that it is.

Robin Zerbe reflects the twisted psyche of the amoral Irma convincingly.  She chills us to the bone when she declares, “At Ravensbruck they had great teachers! There were two types, those that killed and those that were to be killed!”  Zerbe fashions a beguiling Salome, as unapologetic as a kitten and as deadly as an adder, ready to strike at a moment’s notice.  Juxtaposing Irma is the pure-hearted Helene played by the porcelain-skinned Deanna Gowland who presents us with a delicate dirndl-clad Heidi more acceptable to our Teutonic memory.  Gowland shows she is up to the task, with a subtle portrayal that reflects a promising future treading the boards.

The “nightmare” aspect in the titling arrives in the final act when the young prosecutor (Casey Jones) dreams of Irma.  Jones does a good job of depicting a man in conflict, alternately displaying disgust and bewilderment.  Charmed by her beauty, repelled by her acts, he is tormented by her influence on him.  Also notable is Doug Sanford, who gives a performance rich with swagger as the chillingly manipulative monster, Josef Mengele.

Robin Zerbe (Irma), Casey Jones (Prosecutor) & David Adler (Defense Attorney) - Photo credit to Doug Olmsted

Robin Zerbe (Irma), Casey Jones (Prosecutor) & David Adler (Defense Attorney) - Photo credit to Doug Olmsted

Additional credit should go to Carol Strachan as British accent coach and Robin Zerbe, whose many years living in Germany allowed her to nail not only the accent, which she taught to her other cast members, but the gesticulations and inflections that were spot on.

With Angel: A Nightmare in Two Acts Port City Playhouse continues its well-earned reputation for successfully tackling serious and difficult topics by delving into highly-charged racial, social and political material.  They consistently prove their merit while serving as a beacon to community theatre.

At The Lab Studio Theatre at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302.  Performances continue on these dates – November 11, 12, 15, 18 and 19 at 8:00 pm and November 12 and 19 at 2 pm.  For tickets and information call 703 838-2880 or email for reservations or visit

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